Irish Medieval Manuscripts and Viking Settlements

TWH – Pagans who relate to and are interested in Irish traditions often depend on medieval Irish manuscripts to learn more about the gods of that tradition. Some modern pagans see these texts as preserving a pagan past even though Christian monks wrote and copied these manuscripts.

This era of their writing and copying differed from that of the ancient pagan past. Few, if any, physical manuscripts from the time of their initial writing have survived. The monks copied the manuscripts. Rotten originals. What has survived are copies, and sometimes copies of copies, of the original texts. Like a “telephone” game, with each iteration, changes could occur. Different versions of the same story do not always agree.

This article discusses the history and social context of some of these manuscripts. Part of this social context involves the Viking settlement in Dublin. Other parts concern Ireland’s role in the Viking trade network.

During medieval times, Northern Europe experienced significant changes. Cities have started. Christianity linked northern Europe to the Mediterranean. The Vikings established a trade network stretching from Greenland, through northern Europe and all the way to Baghdad. Northern Europe was globalizing, in medieval fashion. This change formed the larger social context in which these manuscripts were written, copied and revised.

The Early Medieval Period in Ireland, circa 400 to 1200 CE

Archaeologist Rebecca Boyd wrote “Building Fences in Viking Dublin: Exploring Ireland’s First Urban Community”. She reported that medieval Ireland had its own strict rules and mobility was highly regulated. Only the “nemed, an elite class, could travel freely. The nemed included royalty, clergy, lawyers and poets.

Ordinary people could not leave their “kill», a group like a tribe or a clan. If they did, they risked becoming a non-person. Viking raids and settlements disrupted this closed society. They began a process of moving to and from these towns.

Map of Viking settlements in Ireland – Image credit: Yorkshirian – CC BY-SA 3.0

Before the Vikings, the Irish landscape consisted of circular forts, farmhouses and monasteries. The Vikings built the first cities in Ireland. Over time, these Hiberno-Nordic cities became the Irish cities of Cork, Dublin and Waterford. Trade and towns began to change the Irish environment, culture and society.

The Anglo-Norman invasions of the 12th century further increased urbanization and maritime trade. Inevitably, these Channel invasions began to link Ireland to the larger neighboring island.

Archaeologists estimate that between 1001 and 1100 Dublin had a population of 4,500. Compared to today’s megacities, this number of people would barely constitute a village. Compared to Ireland before the Vikings, a city of this size would have seemed huge.

“The Book of Invasions”

The Royal Irish Academy provides a history of The Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhala), a major medieval “manuscript”. This title does not refer to a single physical text but rather refers to many textual variations.

Saint Patrick died around 461 CE The Book of Invasions has its origins between 601 and 700. It was “extensively reworked in verse form” between 1001 and 1200. Prose versions gradually replaced some of the poetic versions. Later, between 1632 and 1636, a team of historians, the Four Masters, revised it.

The dates of these reviews are important. A major revision occurs, from 1001 to 1200, as cities begin to form. At this time, the Irish absorb the Hiberno-Norrois. The other major revision took place between 1632 and 1636, after the “Flight of the Earls”, but before Cromwell’s genocidal campaign. Many historians regard this flight as the symbolic end of the Gaelic system. Historical correlation is not causation, but it suggests social context.

Other Irish manuscripts have a similar story. Each iteration injected differences into the stories. While monks wrote texts about the gods for the literate elite, ordinary people told folk tales. Both provide valuable information, but both have evolved.

The first ten lines of The Book of Invasions tell the biblical Genesis. He then gives a genealogy that connects the Abrahamic creation myth to the Irish myth.

Viking Dublin, a brief history

Examining Viking towns can help to understand the social context of early medieval Ireland. Recently, archaeologist Rebecca Boyd participated in an Amplify Archeology podcast about Viking Dublin archaeology.

Reconstruction of a 9th and 10th century Viking shipyard and house in Ireland’s National Heritage Park – Image Credit: David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0

In 795 the Vikings began raiding the Irish coast. These raids originated in Scandinavia. Then the Vikings established summer-long base camps in Ireland to launch raids. They were mainly looking for money. In 840/841, they stayed all year round in Dublin. It had ceased to be a temporary camp and the city of Dublin began.

Boyd pointed out that Viking raiders did not wear Wagnerian horned helmets.

Dublin has become more of a trading center than a raiding center. The kings of Dublin appear. In the layers from 840 to 901, archaeologists mainly found burials, silver hoards or ship camps.

In 902, the Vikings were exiled from Dublin. They went to England. Archaeologists have found that Dublin was continuously inhabited at this time and attracted non-Viking settlers. When the elites left, ordinary people’s lives continued.

In 917, the Viking elite returned to Dublin. From 901 to 1000, Dublin becomes richer and more Hiberno-Nordic. Between 1001 and 1100, the Vikings founded city-like settlements in Cork and Waterford. Dublin became more involved in Irish politics than in Nordic politics. Ties with Scandinavia are beginning to atrophy.

Viking Archeology Dublin

Boyd distinguishes a road from a street. A road is a paved surface that goes somewhere. A street has buildings and people on either side. A street is an animated and dynamic phenomenon. Boyd focused on social ties as the organizing principle of urban areas. In the countryside, everyone is a farmer, but in a city, many professions interact.

Each house was located in a courtyard with other structures. While houses tended to be 6 to 7 meters (19.7 to 23 ft) long, yards tended to be 20 to 30 meters (65.6 to 98.4 ft). Given the size of the structures, a lot of work had to be done outside.

The house would be set back from the street approximately 1–10 meters (3.2–32.8 ft) long. Some of these other structures, possible workplaces, had hostels. Others were sheds for storage or animals like chickens and pigs. In the days before indoor plumbing, every garden had to have an outbuilding. Wooden walkways connected these structures.

Boyd reported that property boundaries have lasted through generations. Some of these borders continued until 1301. To mark these borders, Dubliners built fences. They built these fences of posts and acacias.

In this type of fence, “thin lengths of flexible wood (usually hazel) are woven between vertical pickets (most often ash)”. Dubliners would then top the hazel trellis fence with thorny branches. Irish builders frequently used this building technique.

These fences would run the full length of the property with no gaps. They restricted entry and exits to the front and back of the building. The fences ranged in height from waist high to 1.8 meters (5.9 ft).

The main house

The main house had a rectangular shape. The small side faced the street. Each of the short sides of the rectangle had a door. A fireplace sat in the middle of the house.

Most of these houses were around 40 square meters (430.6 sq ft). The structures housed parents, children, grandparents and possibly a single aunt or uncle. By comparison, the City of Dublin has set 40 square meters (430.6 square feet) as the current minimum legal size for a studio.

Class distinctions were not evident outside the houses. Given the crowded conditions, confidentiality would be paramount. People of higher status would have more separate rooms in the house. People of lower status would have less. Opportunities for privacy marked class distinctions. These models have similarities with houses in Iceland from 1001 to 1201.

Organic matter rots

Dubliners built houses from organic materials, mostly poles and wattle. They covered the roofs with thatch. They packed the earth for a floor.

Archaeologists have not found any stone houses in Viking Dublin.

As organic matter rots, homes are in constant need of repair. The smell of rotting wood would have been common. Organic homes lasted about 15-20 years but are said to be in a constant state of repair. Finally, the decomposition would be too much. The family would tear it down and build a new one.

No one can prove that Viking settlement and trade influenced the evolution of these medieval manuscripts. Yet knowledge of social context can broaden our understanding of these manuscripts and their various iterations. These manuscripts did not just confront the past. They were speaking to their present.

If people want to read the manuscripts, The Celtic Literature Collection has many English translations of medieval manuscripts available online for free. These manuscripts include those from Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales.

The Royal Irish Academy provides resources for understanding these manuscripts and Amplify Archeology offers free podcasts on Irish archaeology.